Tag Archives: Featured

What Plandampf Should Be Next?

Arriva class 150 at Blaenau Ffestiniog
How about replacing this with a steam train for a day or three?

After the success of the plandampf on the Settle and Carlisle line using 60103 “Tornado”, what other routes would be good candidates for something similar?

For the uninitiated, plandampf is a German word describing steam locomotives taking over regular scheduled services for a few days or a weekend rather than the more usual one-off special that doesn’t appear in the public timetable. It’s been a popular thing in Germany for many years.

Here are a few suggestions; since steam locomotives are restricted to 75mph on the main lines it rules out inter-city routes, much as we’d love to see a King running from Paddington to Plymouth instead of a High Speed Train.

The Conwy Valley line

This spectacularly scenic line is one of Wales’ best-kept secrets, the one surviving standard-gauge line to run into the mountainous heart of Snowdonia, and also connects with the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog railway. As an operationally self-contained line, it’s ideal, and the current timetable allows a single train to operate the entire service, though a second locomotive might be needed to speed up the turn-round at Llandudno. The passing loop at Llanrwst North would also allow two-train operation for a more intensive service.

The Central Wales line

This is much longer scenic trip from Swansea to Shrewsbury over a meandering route through the hills of mid-Wales that allegedly only survived the Beeching cuts because it ran through so many marginal parliamentary constituencies. It has the advantage that there’s a triangle to turn the locomotive at both ends of the line, so no tender-first running over the most scenic part of the route The one potential problem is the reversal at Llanelli, though top-and-tail working with a diesel for the short section between Swansea and Llanelli might be one solution here.

Par to Newquay

This is another of those scenic Cinderella lines that, like the Conwy Valley, is crying out for some heritage traction. Lack of any run-round facilities at the Newquay end means top-and-tail working will be necessary, but it will likely need two locomotives to keep to time on those grades in any case; back in the steam days holiday trains needed banking on the 1 in 37 up the Luxulyan valley. A train with a Castle or Hall at the front and a 52XX 2-8-0T at the back would something to see slogging up that grade.

The Greenford Loop

For something completely different, how about this short and self-contained shuttle from West Ealing to Greenford in west London? Rather than a day out behind a big main-line locomotive this is ideal for a Great Western auto-train and the recently-restored steam railcar. The line is double track, so there’s the opportunity have two trains running at the same time.

Over to you. What lines would you love to see taken over by heritage traction for a day or three?

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Tim Bowness – Lost In The Ghost Light

Tim Bowness Lost in the Ghost LightSinger-songwriter Tim Bowness’ fourth solo album is an ambitious affair. It’s a concept album in which a fictitious 1970s classic rock musician reflects on his life and career, and covers themes of fame, ageing and the fear of being made irrelevant by younger and more vital acts. The album features an impressive supporting cast including Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin and The Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord as well as guest appearance from Kit Watkins and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson.

The first two numbers, “Worlds of Yesterday” and the lengthy “Moonshot Manchild” set the overall mood, dreamy and elegiac, Tim Bowness’ sometimes understated vocals set amidst rich keyboard-led arrangements with swirling Mellotron playing a significant role, flute fluttering in and out of the mix, and violin adding yet more colour. “Kill the Pain that’s Killing You” with its squalling guitars and skittering percussion is a change of pace, one song on the album that rocks out. The nine-minute “You’ll be the Silence” is suitably epic without descending into instrumental bombast, while the short but darkly atmospheric title track oozes foreboding. The album closes with “Distant Summers”, a distillation of many of the album’s strengths, and featuring Ian Anderson’s evocative flute solo over a wash of Mellotron; none more prog.

The fictional discography of Jeff Harrison of Moonshot references the iconic artwork of “Dark Side of the Moon” and “In the Court of the Crimson King”, and these are echoed in the music as well along with the more contemporary sounds of Porcupine Tree and latter-day Marillion. But more than anything else the album draws heavily from the sonic palette of the second half of the 1970s, an Indian Summer of progressive rock when the genre was losing the Zeitgeist but nevertheless produced some classic albums that have stood the test of time. This record is Tim Bowness’ homage to that era, and it’s as much about the gorgeous layered arrangements as it is about his excellent songwriting. It’s also an album that works as a continuous piece rather than just a collection of songs. Tim Bowness has done an superb job at evoking the spirit of a past era whilst framing it in a contemporary context.

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Farewell John Wetton

John Wetton

Another of the major figures of progressive rock has left us; John Wetton passed away yesterday after a long illness. My Twitter feed was flooded with tributes both from fans and from fellow musicians. I never met him myself, but a lot of people I know knew him personally, and he was much loved as a person as well as a musician.

John Wetton is of course best known for King Crimson in the 1970s and Asia in the 1980s. The three albums he recorded with King Crimson, “Larks Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless and Bible Black” and “Red” remain landmarks in the progressive rock canon, pushing the envelope for what a rock band could be with a level of improvisation previously only seen in jazz, then switching gears with gorgeous elegaic ballads. “Starless”, which closes “Red” remains on of the greatest pieces of rock music ever recorded.

The supergroup Asia were an altogether different beast, sometimes dismissed as too commercial by genre purists, their polished sound emphasising Wetton’s songwriting and soaring voice, and that self-titled début remains a classic. And then there were all the other bands over the years, Family, the short-lived UK, and stints with Roxy Music and Uriah Heep.

So farewell John, and thanks for all the music. His bandmate in Asia, Geoff Downes has asked us all to listen this song in his memory.

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Firewind – Immortals

Firewind - ImmortalsPower-metal can be a funny old sub-genre. With so many of the common tropes teetering on the edge of self-parody, some bands can easily end up on the wrong side of portentousness; Sonata Arctica, I’m looking at you. Others, most notably Scotland’s excellent Gloryhammer, avoid that fate by taking a deliberately tongue-in-cheek approach.

With their eighth album “Immortals”, their first for five years and first to feature mew frontman Henning Basse, Greece’s Firewind are neither of those things; their approach is simply to be extremely good at everything they do. Featuring song titles like “Ode To Leonidas”, Firewind sing about ancient Greece in the same way their Scandinavian comrades-in-arms sing about Vikings. They fight the beast for Zeus rather than for Odin.

All the expected features of power-metal are here; there are razor-sharp riffs, big singalong choruses, spectacular shredding solos based on classical scales, gallopingly fast tempos and the occasional epic cinematic intro complete with occasional scenery-chewing spoken word parts. All of which would mean little if the band didn’t have the songwriting chops to back them up, but Firewind have that in spades.

There is absolutely no filler on this record; There are face-melters like “We Defy” with its incredible spiralling guitar line, “Back on the Throne”, and the pyrotechnic instrumental title track. “Ode to Leonidas” and “Live And Die By The Sword” with its extended classical guitar intro aspire towards the epic. And “Lady of a Thousand Sorrows” is the obligatory power-ballad.

Henning Basse acquits himself well on lead vocals, with a classic old-school hard rock voice, but this album really belongs to mainman Gus G, his incendiary guitar playing lighting up every track. While there is a degree of showboating in his gravity-defying runs, this being a power-metal album after all, the pyrotechnics are never allowed to overwhelm the songs.

If you’re into power-metal, this album is strongly recommended.

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Summer’s End announce 2017 Lineup

Summers EndWith the Friday night headliner still to be confirmed, Frost* will headline on Saturday night, with The Tangent and Karmakanic co-headlining on Sunday.

The bill also includes Franck Carducci, Maschine, Southern Empire, Elephants of Scotland, Midnight Sun, Half Past Four, Karobow and Weenbo. If you haven’t heard of half of those, neither have I, but that’s the whole point of Summer’s End. It’s not one of those festivals with a predictable lineup heavy with heritage acts; it’s all about new discoveries, and brings in bands from Australia and the US who seldom perform in the UK

The festival will be held on October 6th to 8th 2017 at The Drill Hall, Lower Church St, Chepstow.

More details on the bands at the The Summer’s End Progressive Rock Festival website.

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Future Publishing buys Team Rock Titles

Amidst all the doom and gloom, one piece of good news. The Guardian is reporting that Future Publishing is buying Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Prog magazine from Team Rock’s administrators, securing their immediate future.

Thirty-year-old Metal Hammer magazine and stablemates Classic Rock and Prog have been given a new lease of life after being saved from closure by Future Publishing, owner of titles including Guitarist, Total Film and T3.

The titles, along with the Golden Gods Awards and the Classic Rock Awards, suspended publication and faced closure after owner TeamRock, which fashioned itself as the self-styled “home of rock and metal”, went into administration in December.

No word yet on how many former staff are likely to be rehired, but let’s hope for the best. These are good people who are passionate about music.

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Gleb Kolyadin announces crowdfunded solo album

glebPianist Gleb Kolyadin, the instrumental half of Iamthemorning, has announced a solo albun crowdfunded on Indiegogo.

As he says on the crowdfunding page:

An incredible luck and honour, it gave me hope that I might spark your interest with something different – an instrumental album. With several years in the making, this project became the essence of everything I enjoy as a musician. Classical piano, ethnic influences, electronic oddness, minimalism, art-rock and fusion – all blend together.

I put together a group of amazingly talented musicians to help bring this all to life, and I am sure the names will get you excited. To keep things interesting, I asked them all to unleash their creative freedom, so be prepared for unique and wild. Also, for all you audiophiles out there, I’m preparing a special high resolution treat.

The project is well on its way, and the piano recording is already scheduled at the same amazing Moscow studio that brought you piano of the Lighthouse.

And on Twitter Gleb is promising it will be epic,

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How Good It Is

After the Coro94 Chsistmas concert in December, I remarked that my next concert, Black Sabbath at the 02 Arena, was just about about the complete opposite.

But the world of music has other ideas.

Black Sabbath lead guitarist Tony Iommi worked with his friend Catherine Ogle, the Dean of Birmingham, on this five-minute arrangement, which celebrates peace, harmony and the Cathedral’s role in the heart of the city. The Birmingham rock legend said he wanted to ‘give something back’ to his home city. The words are inspired by Psalm 133, and it’s sung by the boys and men of Birmingham Cathedral Choir.

It’s as if the musical universe is trying to mess with my mind.

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Touchstone and The Heather Findlay Band at The Borderline

Aggie of Touchstone

Touchstone came to London’s Borderline for the second night of their short Christmas tour. These three dates were the band’s first live appearances since the 2015 farewell gigs for Kim Seviour and Rob Cottingham, and gave audience the first opportunity to see the band’s new lineup featuring Aggie Figurska on lead vocals and Liam Holmes on keys.

Support was an acoustic version of The Heather Findlay band. Billed as a trio with guitarist Martin Ledger and harpist Sarah Dean, they were augmented with Touchstone’s Henry Rogers alternating between cajon and keys. Beginning with “Eyes of the Forest”, they delivered a beautiful set with Sarah Dean’s harp given a lot of prominence.

Most of the set came from the newly-released “I Am Snow”, the exceptions being the dreamy “Lake Sunday” from “The Illusion’s Reckoning”, and a stunning cover of Steeleye Span’s version of the medieval carol “Gaudete” with all the band contributing to the multi-part harmony. The two brand new songs, “I Am Snow” itself, and “Dark Eyes” came over strongly, as did the cover of Sandy Denny’s “Winter Winds”. The medley of “Winter is King” and “Day 13″ was another highlight. 2016 does seem to be the year Heather Findlay came into her own as a solo artist; there’s a new-found confidence about her performances this year.

Touchstone hit the stage with metal guitar barrage of “Flux” and proceeded to play a very hard-rocking set with a greater emphasis on shorter, punchier songs than some of their epic-laden sets of the recent past. They drew heavily from the riffy “Oceans of Time” as well including all three songs from the new EP, although they did find room for a few longer songs from earlier albums. “Half-Moon Meadow” from “The City Sleeps” turned into an extended wig-out of guitar and keyboard soloing.

Aggie’s voice has the range and power to hit all the right notes, even if she hasn’t quite got inside the songs and made them hers yet. Her stagecraft still needs work; there was very little interaction with the audience and much of the set proceeded without announcements. Much like Karnataka’s Hayley Griffiths, she comes from a background in musical theatre rather than rock, and needs time to grow into the role of rock frontwoman.

The main set ended with bombastic versions of Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” and Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas”, before the band encored with the epic “Wintercoast” with that distinctive machine-gun bass riff, and Moo and Aggie singing Rob Cottingham’s former male lead parts in harmony. Then came the soaring title track of the new EP “Lights from the Sky” to bring the high energy set to a conclusion.

This short tour represents a new beginning for Touchstone. It’s never easy to replace a much-loved lead singer, especially when Kim Seviour’s sometimes fragile vocals and quirky stage persona were a big part of their appeal. With just three new songs from the EP, Aggie is still singing a set made up largely of older songs written for a different singer, and to some extent the new-look band is still a work in progress. Like Karnataka (twice!) and Mostly Autumn, a new lineup with a new lead singer often comes into its own once they have a substantial amount of new material to perform live. With a new album “Dangerous Days” due in 2017 the best of the new Touchstone is surely yet to come.

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Coro94 at Christmas

coro82-at-christmas

As you all ought to know, I’m really a rock reviewer, so this isn’t a conventional review; I’ve written a lot more about myself that is proper for a typical rock review, but feels appropriate to set the rest of the review in context.

Before I discovered rock and roll in my late teens I listened to a lot of classical music. My mum was a member of an amateur choral society, and I sat through their concerts from an early age. I was probably too young to appreciate some of the seemingly interminable oratorios, but the Christmas carol concerts were always entertaining. In more recent years, while living in Cheadle Hulme, I always attended the very traditional Nine Lessons and Carols at the Parish Church, often the last thing I did up north before heading south to spend Christmas with family. That’s something I’m missed the last couple of years; very often I’ve found myself at a gig as a reviewer the last Sunday before Christmas.

So attending a Christmas concert by one of Britain’s top amateur choirs wasn’t so much a step outside my comfort zone as it was a sense of things coming full circle, especially when the choir in question includes Anne-Marie Helder of Panic Room and Luna Rossa, who needs no introduction to to regular readers of this blog.

The concert itself was as beautiful as the building it was held in. They put together a hugely varied program; with a lot of modern classical compositions especially in the first half, alongside an African-American spiritual, an Oregonian folk carol, a traditional number from Botswana as well as well-know carols and secular Christmas songs. Highlights of the first half included “Serenity (O Magnum Mysterium)” by Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo, a piece accompanied by violin and cello, and works best if you close your eyes and let the music waft over you. They followed this with the completely bonkers “Christus Est Natus” by Slovenia’s Damien Močnik.

For parts of the concert, Coro94 shared their stage with a children’s choir in the shape of the Fulham Cross Girls’ School Glee Club, a reminder of Coro94′s origins as a youth choir. They performed some numbers on their own, including an arrangement of Sia’s “Chandelier”, and joined Coro94 on others, such as the traditional carol “O Holy Night”.

The second half was more up-tempo with an emphasis on traditional carols, with some audience participation on the ambitiously complicated folk carol “Come and I Will Sing You”. They ended with a couple of well-known secular Christmas songs which came over as something equivalent to prog bands covering 70s standards as Christmas encores.

It’s something a little different from your typical rock gig; as is common in events held in churches. the bar served wine but not beer. But much like some contemporary folk or jazz there was nothing that shouldn’t be accessible to a more open-minded progressive rock fan; the Gjeilo piece in particular had a strong Iamthemorning feel about it. It makes me wonder how much being steeped in classical and choral music from an early age has influenced Anne-Marie Helder’s subsequent songwriting, and whether that explains something of why I love her music.

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